This article originally appeared in the March 2019 “Infrastructure” print edition of Native Business Magazine.
When JC Seneca, a member of the Seneca Nation, started his first business in September 1987, he was working three jobs. “I was pumping gas; I was working at our bingo hall; and I had a little gig on the side spinning records at a local radio station,” he told Native Business Magazine.
One might think he was too busy to consider launching his own business venture. But from Seneca’s ambitious perspective, that’s just when opportunity came knocking. “When I started my business, I had enough money to purchase 60 cartons of cigarettes. I had a little camper, and I parked my camper on the side of the road, and set up a table with my 60 cartons of cigarettes. It was like a little fruit stand, but instead of fruit, I’m selling cigarettes,” said Seneca.
Two major highways intersect on Seneca Nation territory, located roughly 30 miles south of Buffalo, New York, drawing a significant amount of traffic. Seneca had no problems turning a profit.
He put that revenue toward building a small convenience store called Native Pride — which, about eight years down the road, he would relocate and vastly expand to a 50-acre property called Native Pride Travel Plaza. Today, Native Pride Travel Plaza houses a smoke shop, gas station, high-speed Diesel pumps and popular diner in Irving, New York.
Fuel for Success
Business accelerated after Seneca installed gas pumps at Native Pride Travel Plaza in September 1995. But sales really started to soar in 1998, when Seneca added diesel pumps and debuted his truck stop.
Located on prime real estate, off Exit 58 on the New York State Thruway I-90, “all the big trucks pull off the highway to come in and fuel up. We have everything a trucker could need, including supplies and showers. Everything is geared toward the trucking business,” he said, including the 24/7 convenience store and Native Pride Diner, a buzzing, family-friendly restaurant serving from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Truckers can take a break by taking advantage of free truck parking at Native Pride.
Seneca also drives traffic to Native Pride, because his gas prices are hard to beat. “I’m a motor fuel wholesaler and transporter with my own fleet of trucks. We go to the refineries and pull fuel from them and bring it back here, so I’m totally self-sufficient,” Seneca said. “I produce my own cigarettes, and I haul my own fuel.”
Seneca recently purchased two new trucks for a total of six units. He sends a tractor and tanker daily to Pennsylvania and back. Seneca is taking charge of his own destiny by getting fuel at the best price. “If I were to buy from a wholesaler who goes and delivers fuel to me, I’m stuck with his price — whatever it may be that day. I’m able to get the best price every day, because I’m the buyer, I’m the trucker, I’m the wholesaler, and the transporter of the fuel.”
Creating BUFFALO Cigarettes
More than a decade ago, Seneca developed and trademarked his own brand of cigarettes: BUFFALO Cigarettes. “At the time, I had them produced in Peru, and to facilitate that, I applied for and received a customs bonded warehouse here on Seneca Nation territory, where I could receive my product,” Seneca explained.
Manufacturing BUFFALO Cigarettes in Peru, shipping them to New York, and then trucking them to a customs bonded facility on Tribal property accomplished two things: “I created my own brand of cigarettes, and I was able to protect my supply line, so that the state of New York could not come in and interfere with it. They don’t have authority to do that, because the federal government regulates bonded warehouses,” Seneca explained.
“I had the idea that if we were going to succeed in business, we had to put ourselves in control of our own destiny,” Seneca said.
Since the early 1980s, New York State has vigorously tried to find ways to tax commerce on Seneca Nation territory, Seneca said. “Over the course of my 32 years in business, New York State has continually attempted to encroach on our sovereignty and to force their regulations on us,” Seneca said. “We’ve been very successful in resisting that.”
Six Nations Manufacturing is licensed by the Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which regulates the manufacturing of cigarettes in the United States. “In doing so, I remit federal taxes on every cigarette that I produce and release into the market,” Seneca clarified. To this day, Seneca doesn’t pay state sales or excise tax on sales of BUFFALO Cigarettes or any products sold through Native Pride Travel Plaza. “We exercise our sovereignty in regards to our economies and regulations,” Seneca said. “We stuck to our principles and what our ancestors put in place for us to protect and defend. It’s our responsibility to future generations; it’s a great responsibility.”
Seneca believes his persistent advocacy for Tribal rights and sovereignty has influenced legislators. “As I sit here in 2019, I believe it has protected not only my business but other Native businesses throughout the territories in New York,” Seneca said.
But it’s been an upstream battle. In addition to state push-back, Big Tobacco attempted to impede on Tribal sovereignty. “Phillip Morris was working with state legislatures, especially in New York, and also with Washington, to craft legislation that would put the small manufacturer and Native manufacturers out of business. They spent a lot of money lobbying and helping legislatures craft legislation,” Seneca said.
That resulted in a couple things: one was the PACT (Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking) Act, “which was very detrimental to our economy at the Seneca Nation, because we had a significant number of businesses that were mail-order or Internet-based and shipped cigarettes all across the country. Once the PACT Act was signed into law, that put many of our people out of business,” Seneca recalled.
Along with that, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a provision nearly eight years ago restricting the flow of product to Tribal territories. He effectively barred big brand tobacco, such as Marlboro and Winston-Salem, from traveling to Indian reservations. Now Tribal Nations in New York State sell Native-produced cigarettes exclusively. Native Pride Travel Plaza currently carries cigarettes produced on the sovereign territories of the Seneca Nation, Tuscarora Nation, Cayuga Nation, Mohawk Nation, as well as the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada.
Seneca underscored that if he and other Native entrepreneurs and Tribes had not started their tobacco initiatives 20 years ago, “we would be out of business, because we would have no supply line or product,” Seneca said. Seneca had the foresight to recognize potential threats down the road. When he started BUFFALO Cigarettes, he got help from a friend with a factory for production the first couple of years, “until I was able to get my factory up and running.”
For the past 10 years, Seneca has produced BUFFALO Cigarettes at his tobacco plant, Six Nations Manufacturing.
Building Six Nations Manufacturing
Seneca self-capitalized Six Nations Manufacturing with the income created through his retail business. “I had to be a self-sufficient funding source,” said Seneca, emphasizing how challenging it can be for Native-owned businesses to obtain a bank loan, because Tribal lands can’t be held for collateral. “They don’t want to deal with an Indian, because if someone defaults on a loan, they have no recourse to property or collateral. A lot of the businesses that I’ve built have been self-funded,” said Seneca, adding that he always funnels revenues to reinvest into other business projects.
On family land passed down to him, Seneca hired a contractor to construct a small building to house his initial customs bonded warehouse for the production and manufacture of cigarettes. Over the course of time, he added on two more buildings. “It goes in phases as your business grows. You adjust and take the necessary steps to accommodate it,” he said.
Six Nations Manufacturing is currently “operating very efficiently and productively,” Seneca said, adding that he’s grateful that he’s been able to play a role in sustaining the local economy — “not just with the cigarettes that I make, but supporting other Native cigarettes. I built and structured Six Nations and Native Pride to enhance our ability as Native people to help others to be in business and be successful at it,” Seneca said. “We need to help Native people and businesses. We are much stronger if we do that, rather than squashing one another. That’s the way I look at business and being an entrepreneur and a responsible member of my Nation.”
While Six Nations Manufacturing can legally pursue licenses to distribute in all 50 states, the manufacturing and distribution company has chosen its licenses selectively to navigate the constantly changing tobacco market. Foreign cigarette brands are entering the United States’ market “at a much lower price than I can manufacture and pay the tax on,” Seneca said. “We’re seeing it time and time again. Korean tobacco cigarettes are coming in at a significantly lower price. As a manufacturer, I have to create the cigarette and pay the tax to whatever state I’m going into.”
Ever-agile, Seneca has responded by reevaluating the movement of his product into other states. Seneca previously sold BUFFALO Cigarettes in Nevada, New Mexico, California, Washington, Idaho, Nebraska, Florida, Texas, New York and South Carolina. “The new model just concentrates on the homeland here, and the Nations within the Confederacy in New York. I’m still in the Florida market, but I’ve pulled back from the other states,” he said, adding that BUFFALO Cigarettes have maintained traction in Florida due to its long-time presence in the Sunshine State.
Making an Impact
Through his various businesses, Seneca currently employs more than 100 people. “I look at it as it’s also a hundred families that depend on what I do. It’s a great responsibility every day to make the right choice and right decision, because I could make an adverse decision that could really affect that. I have to make sure that I’m making good decisions each day that I operate my business,” he said.
Also central to Seneca’s personal mission in life is supporting indigenous people and giving back. In 2011, he started the JC Seneca Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to advance healthy living in body, mind, and spirit for the people of the Seneca Nation and surrounding communities.
The JC Seneca Foundation additionally serves as the “support mechanism” his wife Nicole Seneca’s nonprofit called It Takes a Tribe, which provides support and love to children in foster and kinship care, as well as the families who are caring for them.
Through determination and gumption, Seneca has created businesses pivotal to the economies of several Sovereign Nations in New York State and the local community. “One of the things that was ingrained in me when I was a child is that there is no such word as ‘can’t.’ You always have to find a way to succeed — and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been a great journey,” Seneca said.
Seneca celebrated 32 years in business in September 2019, though, he said, “It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was standing on the side of the road selling cigarettes with nothing in my pockets.”
Those fond memories of his early days keep Seneca “grounded and focused,” he said. “Make sure that you attend to the important things in business and in life, so that you can be successful and enjoy it.”
Helping Tribes Build Tobacco Brands
JC Seneca is now looking to offer guidance to other Sovereign Nations on launching their own Tribally owned and branded tobacco products. “We can help facilitate that — produce it for them, and help them brand their own cigarette for their own Nation,” Seneca said.
Seneca realizes the power of branding across companies and product lines. He thinks Tribal casinos, convenience stories and gas stations can capitalize on putting their personal label on tobacco products, while retaining a greater share of the revenues. “I’m sure many of the casinos that our people operate are selling Marlboro or Winston cigarettes. Why not sell a Native cigarette? Why not sell their own branded cigarette — that we can help them with to create and produce?”